(Photo: Fibonacci Blue)
In response to the growing movement against new fossil fuel infrastructure – with the most notable example being the months-long Standing Rock encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline – a host of states are seeing proposals and enactments of legislation that criminalizes protesters.
Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania have all seen proposals (and enactments by Oklahoma and Louisiana) of legislation that increases penalties tied to protest of “critical infrastructure” – i.e., things like fossil fuel pipelines, plants, and compressor stations. (We could also add Iowa to this list – read more about the protester crackdown laws and specific examples in different states at the Nation and the Intercept).
The state officials who are driving this wave of repressive legislation take tens of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests. Many sponsors of these draconian bills – the politicians doing the bidding of the industry that the protesters are targeting – have accepted big donations from oil and gas companies and their lobbying associations.
Below we offer some tips on how you can follow the money behind your own state politicians to see if they’re doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry to target protesters and attack basic civil liberties. We also give two brief examples of how we researched the fossil fuel industry donations behind state-level elected officials that are pushing forward protester criminalization legislation.
Tools to map the corporate money behind politicians pushing protest criminalization
There are several free tools available to organizers and activists who are following this dangerous legislation and the interests it advances. These tools can help you identify new and pending bills that would criminalize protesters and the corporate money behind the politicians who are advancing this legislation.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law provides a useful and intuitive US Protest Law Tracker that allows you to review related legislation in every state. Simply click on any state to see how many related bills have been enacted, are pending, or already passed. Double click to see summaries of the bills and links to original text where you can review bill language and sponsors.
Once you have these basics, you can begin to look up the bill co-sponsors and their corporate donors. Each state has its own version of campaign finance disclosure with varying degrees of accessibility. These databases can be typically found by googling your state and “campaign finance.” If you are having trouble navigating your state’s database, the National Institute of Money in Politics provides FollowTheMoney.org, a free online database that cleans and organizes state-level campaign finance data.
(Please note that cleaning and organizing 50 different campaign finance disclosure databases is no easy task so there may be some lag time between when filings are made of official state sites and when they show up on Follow The Money.)
You can learn how to navigate the Follow The Money database in this free webinar from our Map The Power series:
Here are two examples of how we dug up some quick information on some key elected officials who have pushed legislation in Louisiana and Pennsylvania that criminalizes or would criminalize pipeline protesters.
One of the country’s biggest battles over new fossil fuel infrastructure is taking place in Louisiana right now over the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. If finished, Bayou Bridge will effectively be the last leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline, transporting the Bakken crude oil it delivers to Texas across Louisiana. In response to protests against the pipeline, Louisiana passed a new law, which went into effect August 1, that imposes harsher penalties on for civil disobedience that targets “critical infrastructure” tied to fossil fuel projects in the state.
The bill was introduced by Major Thibaut, a Democratic representative from Louisiana’s District 18, which includes West Baton Rouge. Thibaut has served in the Louisiana house for a decade. Dozens of other representatives also sponsored the legislation. Since 2014 alone (you could go back further, too), Thibaut has accepted at least $9,500 total from Chevron, Atmos Energy, NRG, Koch Industries, Phillips 66, Conoco Phillips, Chesapeake, BNSF Railway, and the Louisiana Oil Marketers and Convenience Store Association PAC. It should be noted that this number doesn’t include donations from executives and from most PACs that take in fossil fuel money; moreover, Thibault ran unopposed in his 2015 primary and general reelection. (According to FollowTheMoney.org, Thibault has taken in $21,409 from the fossil fuel and utilities industry, but the number is likely higher).
We found this information by googling “Louisiana” and “Campaign Finance” and then going to the state’s campaign finance website. Then we clicked “View Reports” and then “Campaign Finance Contributions.” Then we went to “Search Electronically Filed Reports Only” and then “E-File Filer Name.” After that, we entered Major Thibaut and then clicked on his name. Then we had access to a list of his campaign finance filings and began reviewing them. (Note: some state databases, like Louisiana’s are more difficult to use than others, and you will likely need to play around on the site a little bit before you find what you’re looking for).
As for the information from FollowTheMoney.org, we clicked on “start here” and then entered the filters “contributions to” and “candidate(s),” then “specific candidate,” and entered Major Thibaut and then clicked “go.” Then we went to the filter “Contributor” and clicked “General Industry,” and the list of donations by industry to Thibaut by industry showed up.
Along with other states, officials in Pennsylvania followed Louisiana and have put forth a bill to protect “critical infrastructure.” The Pennsylvania bill (SB 652), which is now pending in legislation, would impose harsher penalties for protests near critical infrastructure including elevating such protests from criminal trespass misdemeanors to felonies:
“Under the bill, it is a felony to trespass in a “critical infrastructure facility,” which is broadly defined to include natural gas facilities and pipelines as well as cell phone towers, telephone poles, and railroad tracks that are fenced off or posted as no-entry areas. The bill makes knowingly entering or trying to enter such an area a second-degree felony punishable by up to one year in prison and a minimum $5,000 fine.”
This bill was introduced by Senator Mike Regan (R-31, Cumberland and York) in April 2017 and is characterized in news articles as a direct response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. The legislation creates a new class of property called “critical infrastructure facilities” and ostensibly imposes higher degrees of felonies due to the nature of the property. ACLU of Pennsylvania wrote the state Senate to oppose the legislation citing it as redundant (criminal trespass laws are already on the books) and containing errors in the escalating degree of the financial penalty.
A review of Regan’s candidate profile in FollowTheMoney.org shows that his top donor is a political action committee called Build PA PAC, which gave him $60,000 in two installments. A quick google of the name of this innocuous sounding PAC takes us to a profile on OpenSecrets.org, which shows that much of its funding comes from several big name oil and gas corporations including Consol Energy, FirstEnergy Corp, Exelon, and Energy Transfer Partners. Regan received donations from many of those same corporations and their employees directly including Exelon and FirstEnergy, and related donors include PPL, aka Pennsylvania Power and Light, a utility. Regan also received over $31,000 from the Pennsylvania Republican Party. You can navigate to review the top donors to this committee as well.
Researching and mapping out the sponsors of legislation aimed at criminalizing protesters of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and the corporate backers of these elected officials, can help organizers gain a better sense of the power relations behind these attacks and help in thinking about strategy and tactics. In addition to uncovering campaign donations, we also encourage researchers to experiment and search around on the internet – sometimes just googling an elected official’s name alongside the names of specific oil and gas companies or industry groups, or alongside phrases like “fossil fuels,” “oil and gas,” or “fracking,” can lead to useful finds that help you better understand the relationship of local politicians to the fossil fuel industry.